To see or not to see: To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

By Chua Hui Xuan (19J10) and Chloe Kwek (20J18)

Atticus with his daughter Scout and son Jem

This is the fifth of our seven-part series called To See Or Not To See, in which we review some of our favourite films that deserve revisiting, especially in a time when it's best for us to stay at home.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a poignant 1962 American drama film based on Harper Lee’s award-winning novel of the same name. Set in the Depression era, six-year-old Scout Finch and her older brother Jem live in sleepy Maycomb, Alabama. They spend much of their time with their friend Dill, spying on their reclusive and mysterious neighbour Boo Radley. When Atticus, their widowed father and a respected lawyer, defends a black man named Tom Robinson against fabricated rape charges, the children become exposed to the evils of racism and stereotyping.

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” - Atticus Finch

This wise quote by the protagonist’s father captures the essence of the movie - that discrimination is pointless, so we should refrain from making judgements about other people before we have tried to understand them. Atticus offers this moral advice to his daughter after she expresses frustration with her teacher and first day of school. This conversation catalyses one of the film’s critical themes: the importance of empathy, which enables a more profound understanding of humanity. From this point forward, Scout slowly begins to mature and treat others with more compassion.

Given its main themes of racism and discrimination, it is perhaps appropriate that this movie was released at the height of America’s Civil Rights Movement, a decades-long struggle by African-Americans to end legalised racial discrimination, disenfranchisement and racial segregation in the United States. The Us versus Them dynamic that persists in the USA to this day also brings to mind the discrimination of Bangladeshi/ Indian foreign workers in Singapore. The current Covid-19 pandemic has brought to light the ill-treatment of migrant workers in Singapore, such as the dismal living conditions, wage issues and Singaporeans’ own prejudices against the migrant community. The situation takes an emotional and mental toll on the migrant workers as well. The virus is not racist; however, it revealed the populace’s deep-rooted biases and discriminatory behaviours, as the impact of the virus is more severe on the vulnerable and marginalised groups within society.

Closer to home, we can draw connections about this movie’s relevance to our school. RV is largely homogeneous, predominantly consisting of Chinese students and staff. It may be all too easy to overlook those of different ethnicities and unwittingly exclude them, such as by speaking Chinese in front of them without considering how they might feel. As such, this movie reiterates the importance of being sensitive towards others.

Atticus Finch (left) and Tom Robinson (right)

In his closing argument, Atticus asks the all-white male jury to cast aside their prejudices and focus on Tom's obvious innocence. Sadly, despite Atticus’ best efforts, Robinson is found guilty and convicted of rape, and is eventually killed during his transfer to prison, apparently while attempting to escape. This shows how difficult it is to eradicate entrenched prejudice and institutionalised discrimination. Though this seemingly paints a bleak picture of the fate of marginalised groups, we should not give up hope that equality may one day be achieved in our society. In light of the recent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, the kindness and fairness of Atticus Finch and his courageous daughter Scout serves as a positive and timely reminder that not everyone in this world is cruel, and that we are still progressing towards a truly inclusive society.

The lessons learnt from To Kill A Mockingbird are still pertinent to this day: we should not judge a book by its cover, or people by the colour of their skin.

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